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Mid-season report card: Pitchers

After the team and position-player report cards, it's finally time for the pitchers.  Assigning pitcher grades is tricky: what do we use to grade them?  W/L depends on the offense, ERA depends on the defense (and opposing offense), WPA is too context-dependent, FIP doesn't account for hit-type distributions, and SIERA (which is promising, although it still can't explain John Lannan) doesn't have much of a track record. Anyhow, I started with WAR and homerishly cherry-picked a variety of other stuff to come up with these grades:

Jordan Zimmermann
Tyler Clippard
Drew Storen
Livan Hernandez
Jason Marquis
Ryan Mattheus
Todd Coffey
Henry Rodriguez C+
John Lannan
Tom Gorzelanny
Sean Burnett


An explanation of the grading scheme and detailed player-by-player discussion after the jump.  As always, data courtesy fangraphs and baseball-reference, through games of July 20, 2011.

My starting points for grading pitchers are WAR and ERA-. WAR is based on FIP (fielding-independent pitching).  It judges pitchers based purely on the things they alone control: strikes, walks, and HRs.  It's by no means a perfect measure, so I also look at ERA-. ERA- is ERA, corrected for ballpark effects and normalized to league average: 100 is league average, and lower is better (just like with ERA, itself); a pitcher with a 50 ERA- gives up half as many runs as a league-average pitcher. Note that defense and luck play a big part in ERA-, which is why I started with WAR/FIP.  I also look at peripherals like baserunners allowed (WHIP), strikeout rate, and walk rate.

For starters, I add innings pitched per start and that perennial MASN-broadcast-commentator bugaboo the Quality Start (roughly, did the starter pitch well enough and long to not kill the bullpen and to allow a league-average offense a chance to win). For relievers, I add the percentage of inherited runners scored and the number of shutdowns (SD) versus meltdowns (MD)--because saves and holds are abominations that encourage bad bullpen management and tell you nothing about pitcher performance.

Roughly speaking, "A" = Ace, "B" = top half of rotation/bullpen, "C" = bottom half of rotation/bullpenplayer, "D" = due for a  DL trip to rehab sprained fastball, "F" = just off/heading to the waiver wire.  I only considered players with at least 10 IP who are still on the active roster.  Also, when I talk about how pitchers rank relative to the league, I'm comparing starters to starters and relievers to relievers. Enough talk, on to the grades!

Head of the Class ("A" students)

Jordan Zimmermann has put up 3.3 fWAR and a 79 ERA- in his 120 IP so far, striking out 18.0% of batters faced while walking a miniscule 4.4% (3rd best in the NL).  He's 8th in the NL in pitcher fWAR, between Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, and he has the 7th-lowest WHIP (1.08).  He averages just over 6 innings pitched per start, 74% of which were Quality Starts.  Bochy must hate Midwesterners, because there's no other reason for J-Zim not to have been an AS this year. Grade: A

Tyler Clippard has 0.7 fWAR in 56.1 IP with an astounding 46 ERA-.  He strikes out 33.8% of batters faced (4th among NL relievers) and walks 9.5% (just worse than league average).  He's allowed only 18% of inherited runners to score, while racking up 27 SDs (5th in the NL) and only 5 MDs in his 44 appearances.  His 4th-in-the-NL 0.85 WHIP is just the icing on the cake.  As we've already discussed, Clipp is good at baseball. Grade: A

Drew Storen has a 67 ERA- and 0.6 fWAR in 48.1 IP. He fans 19.9% of batters faced (a bit worse than average), while walking only 6.3% (13th in the NL).  He's allowed 22% of his inherited runners to come around, with 28 SDs (tied for 3rd) and 6 MDs in 46 appearances.  His 0.95 WHIP is 10th in the NL.  That's solid performance that stops just short of exceptional. Grade: A-

Major League Achievers ("B" students)

Livan Hernandez has wiled his way to 1.9 fWAR and a 106 ERA- in 131.1 IP over 21 starts.  He' s struck out 14.4% of batters this season, while walking only 6.2% (in the top third of NL starters).  He allows a lot of baserunners, as his 1.39 WHIP is in the bottom quarter of the NL. He's gone just under 6 1/3 innings per start, with 57% QS.  Overall, that's a decent but unexceptional performance--decent outcomes built on shaky peripherals.  Grade: B-

Jason Marquis has flirted with both excellence and disaster this season, racking up a 103 ERA- and 1.6 fWAR in 114.2 IP over 19 GS.  His 7.0% walk rate is a bit better than average, while his 13.9% strikeout rate is a good bit worse.  He's in the bottom quarter of the league in baserunners allowed (1.41 WHIP), but he's averaged a hair over 6 IP per GS, with 63% QS.  Again, decent but not outstanding, with some cause for worry in the peripherals. Grade: B-

Ryan Mattheus has an astonishing 40 ERA- and 0.1 fWAR in 17.2 IP. This is in spite of only striking out 11.9% of batters (which would be worst in the NL if he qualified) and walking 9.0% (a bit better than average). His 0.96 WHIP is top-ten-worthy, and he's allowed a better-than-average 24% of inherited runners to score. He has 5 SDs and 2 MDs in 17 appearances. He's had surprisingly good results in limited opportunities, but the SSS snake could bite him at any moment. Grade: B-

Gentleman Ballplayers ("C" students)

Henry Rodriguez has given us no shortage of excitement on the way to a 75 ERA- and 0.5 fWAR in 34.2 IP.  He's struck out 24.5% (top third in the NL) and walked 14.6% (4th worst).  He's let in 30% of inherited runners, just under league average. In 29 appearances he's had 5 SDs but 6 MDs--a bit more likely to blow the game than save it.  That's probably due to his 1.41 WHIP, which is in the bottom 20% of the league.  There's promise here (for instance, he has yet to give up a HR), but he's not there yet.  Grade: C+

Todd Coffey has a 106 ERA- and 0.4 fWAR in 38 IP. He's striking out 18.3% of batters (bottom third of the NL) and walking 9.5% (a bit better than average). His 1.45 WHIP is in the bottom quarter, and he's allowed only 14% of inherited runners to score. He has 5 SDs and 5 MDs in 41 appearances. He's had good results, but with weak peripherals. Grade: C+

John Lannan continues to frustrate DIPS theorists everywhere, with only 1.0 fWAR in his 114.1 IP over 20 GS, but a better-than-average 95 ERA-.  He only strikes out 12.8% of batters, while walking 8.5%--both well below average. His 1.36 WHIP is just in the bottom third of the NL, despite all the free passes and lack of Ks. He's struggled to go deep into games this year, averaging a bit more 5 2/3 innings per start, with only 45% QS.  While he continues to defy his peripherals, he's not defying them by enough. Grade: C

Tom Gorzelanny has managed only 0.3 fWAR and a 106 ERA- in his 79.1 IP in 14 GS.  His peripherals are decent, striking out 21.2% of batters (top quarter of the NL), walking 7.7% (a bit worse than average), and having a 1.28 WHIP (league average).  He's only lasted 5 2/3 innings per start, with 43% QS.  He's also had a weakness for the long ball, giving up 1.58 HR/9 (flyball pitcher + worse-than-average HR/FB = ouch).  Overall, Tom's been a mixed bag, at best.  Grade: C-

Not Helping ("F")

Sean Burnett has been disappointing this season, with a 145 ERA- and -0.7 fWAR in 34.1 IP. He's only striking out 12.5% of batters (5th worst in the NL) while walking 9.2% (about league average).  Add in 1.36 HR/9 (8th worst), and you get 10 SDs but 12 MDs in 43 appearances, with 47% of inherited runners scored (much worse than league average).  His 1.46 WHIP is terrible: 9th-worst in the NL.  No two ways around it, Sean is hurting the team more than he's helping it this year.  Grade: F

Does this tell us anything?

First of all, the Nats haven't used that many pitchers this year. Even looking to the guys who aren't on the 25-man anymore, no one who's not on this list has thrown 20 innings or more. Second of all, the Nats' record has been "saved" by pitching that really hasn't been that good. Once you get past the obvious success of a near-.500 record despite anemic offense, I don't know how they're doing it: everyone but J-Z, Drew, and Clipp has weak or erratic peripherals. As always, please offer your own assessments in the comments. These grades were much more subjective than what I gave the position players, so I'm eager to hear how the rest of NatsTown sees it.